Sunday, 20 September 2009

How should we judge official reaction to catastrophic events? High-profile arrests, murderous rampages, terror attacks, gang warfare, arson – these are the types of events that will make authorities respond in the media.

There they sum up the situation and in the process pass judgement on behalf of the rest of us. The response gives us a sense that it was ‘felt’ in the places that needed to feel it. Alone in our living rooms, we feel secure that those in power have heeded the devastating signal we’ve just received from the streets.

There are two ways that officials express themselves. It is either something along the lines of “everything is under control” or else “we will do more in future”. I think there’s no doubt which of the two methods I prefer to hear.

Perhaps the first response is given when bad things happen that frighten us, such as the attack by a ‘loner’ schoolboy two days ago that resulted in injury to ten people. His name has not been released, probably because he was not killed. The attack took place in the Bavarian town of Ansbach and involved an 18-year-old using petrol bombs, knives and an axe to wreak havoc on occupants of Gymnasium Carolinum which the Bavarian Culture Minister said was “not a problem school”.

And the response?

"Our experience here makes clear that our improved procedures are effective," [German Interior Minister] Hermann told a news conference, "The quick response prevented even worse happening."

In other words, we were able to contain the danger quickly, minimising casualties. The attack came almost exactly six months after the gun attack by German teenager Tim Kretschmer at Winnenden, where 15 people died.

But the response contains nothing to suggest better controls will be implemented to stop this kind of thing happening in future. What is it with German kids and schools, anyway? Are these kids just depressive loners with no social skills or is there some underlying dynamic we’re not yet aware of?

The second type of response is the promise of improvement and there’s an excellent example from the same day. Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s response to the elimination of Malaysian terror bomber Mohammed Noordin Top includes a promise to tackle the ''ignorance and poverty'' that causes terrorists to take up a struggle they may be prevented from assuming.

... Dr Yudhoyono was not declaring outright victory, even if the terrorist threat had been ''seriously reduced'' with Noordin's death.
''Paralysing [Noordin's cell] just means we have won a battle, but, by prevention, we will win the war against terrorism,'' he said. ''We have to save our country, our people, our community and our young generation from the temptation to involve themselves in terrorism.''

He said this was cause for an acceleration of spending on education, both formal and religious.

In Indonesia, there is a lot of sympathy for so-called ‘terrorists’. The men are sheltered, fed, concealed, and funded by ordinary people who otherwise would never break the law. SBY knows this. He also knows that there is a lot of xenophobia in his country, the type that prefers home-grown criminals winning rather than foreign meddlers.

The difference, I guess, is that SBY was marking the successful end to a long campaign and investigation, whereas the Germans were reacting defensively to another aberrant outcome of their education system.

The difference is noticeable. SBY is being diplomatic because he can afford to be gracious in victory; whereas the Germans, to make the most of a bad situation, are crowing about their success in the hope the sound will dampen any discontent with their overall performance.

It’s all about perception and the media. We only display that which will cause ourselves the least discomfort.


Anonymous said...

I think your being a bit harsh on the germans. Is there anything they can do that they're not doing already? If you can't prove that, then it's a bit rich to claim that they did the best they could with a bad situation.

Matt da Silva said...

Maybe you're right but I want to hear something about tackling student discontent. The German attacks are always catastrophic. In Australia, attacks like this rarely lead to personal injury or death.